OCD and Restrictive Eating

by Idea Go freedigitalphotos.net

by Idea Go freedigitalphotos.net

When my son Dan was in the throes of severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, he could not eat. I have previously discussed how his symptoms could easily have been mistaken for an eating disorder, but that is not what he was dealing with. He was neither fixated on his weight nor his body image. Rather his focus was on keeping his world safe, and for whatever reason, his OCD convinced him that could be achieved by not eating. The restriction and denial of food, in Dan’s case, was a compulsion. And a dangerous one at that. As is often the case in the world of OCD, Dan achieved the very thing he was trying so hard to prevent. Instead of keeping his world safe, he put his life in jeopardy, courtesy of OCD’s demands.

I knew little to nothing about obsessive-compulsive disorder when Dan was in crisis, and certainly never associated eating problems with OCD. I thought Dan was “the only one” who had this issue. Over the years, however, I’ve heard of many people with OCD who struggle with eating in various ways. And a good number of them are children.

I find this heartbreaking. I know that OCD can attack any and all aspects of a person’s life, but when it latches on to something as basic and vital as the need to be nourished, it takes the torment of OCD to another level. And not just for the person with OCD, but for his or her loved ones as well. I know from personal experience the feelings of panic and despair when I couldn’t get my son to eat a morsel of food. Talk about feeling helpless. What kind of mother can’t feed her child?

While I’ve mentioned that Dan’s obsessions centered on harm coming to himself and others, there are many reasons why those with OCD refuse to eat. Perhaps they feel all food is contaminated and will make them sick or even kill them. Maybe they are afraid of choking or vomiting, or they have to chew a certain way and it’s just easier not to eat. The list goes on and on. It is important to note that it is not unusual for children with PANDAS to also struggle with eating issues.

While eating only certain foods isn’t quite as dangerous as not eating at all, it is still a very real problem. Malnourishment and dehydration are common, and other complications can easily ensue. As I mentioned earlier in this post, OCD succeeds in accomplishing the exact opposite of what those with OCD are seeking to attain.

So what’s the answer? In my opinion, a good therapist who understands OCD and eating disorders and can differentiate between the two and begin proper treatment as soon as possible. And while not being able to nourish yourself or your child is not something I’d wish on anyone, there is hope. My son recovered and now enjoys food as much as he did before OCD came into our lives. If he can do it, so can you or your loved one. OCD, in any form, can be beaten!

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12 Responses to OCD and Restrictive Eating

  1. Caryn says:

    This is so true. Seeing a child lose weight rapidly is terrifying. My son couldn’t eat at one stage, due to contamination/vomiting fears. The worst time of my life to date. With ERP CBT he got through that part of his OCD and is now, thankfully, a real foodie. Some other elements of his OCD are still as strong as ever, sadly.

    • Thanks for sharing Caryn and I’m glad to hear your son’s eating issues have resolved. Hopefully he will find the strength soon to fight the other aspects of his OCD as well. Wishing you both all the best.

  2. Hi Janet – I read your blog religiously as Dan’s OCD is so very similar to my daughter Rebecca’s. She is 21 and left university in the second term of the first year as she couldn’t cope. Having just spent 6 months in The Priory Hospital’s OCD unit in London she is slightly better but has been discharged as she doesn’t want to fully engage in the programme. How can we get her to realise that the only way she can recover is if she wants to? She continues to ritualise and undertake compulsions even though it is ruining her life! I can’t understand why she doesn’t want to get well. Did you ever have this situation with Dan and how did you deal with it? Also, does Dan ever publicly speak about his OCD and recovery?

    • Thank you for sharing Lesley and I am so sorry your daughter is having such a tough time fighting her OCD. It is so hard for those of us without the disorder to understand how difficult it can be to commit to ERP therapy. We were so fortunate that Dan never really dealt with recovery avoidance. This article might help you understand it a bit more:


      While Dan has been supportive of my advocacy work, and gave his blessing for my book to be published, he doesn’t generally speak publicly about his OCD. He feels the best thing for him is to move on and not focus on his OCD, and I need to respect that. We are so thankful he continues to do well.
      Please don’t lose hope. Your daughter will get there too when she is ready. I wish you both all the best.

  3. Mohamed Ravalia says:

    Hi Jamet

    Thank you for your very helpful and informative blog Our son has had many of the features that you have described with Dan We live in Canada and are looking for a residential program that we feel would benefit our son Any advice as to a good program?

    Thank you,

    Dianne Ravalia ravalia@eastlink.ca

    Sent from my iPhone


  4. Great post! Thanks for bringing awareness to food-related OCD–one of the worst kinds, in my opinion. And thanks for mentioning PANDAS.

  5. Audrey says:

    Wow, I am so happy/thrilled to hear your son recovered and enjoys food again. I am 36 years old, this fear that i will unwittingly choke on food and liquid, and sometimes fear that I will inhale my food on purpose, hit me 2 and a half years ago, after i choked on a piece of orange but luckily got it out. I have been struggling daily these past 2 and a half years. The suffering has been so great that I cannot even begin to describe it. I was in 2 years of cbt with an excellent therapist and it helped a bit but I am still greatly struggling. Could you please share some thoughts on how your son recovered so as to help me with my own recovery? Many thanks and blessings to you and your family.

    • Hi Audrey, I’m sorry to hear you’ve been suffering for so long. Each person’s OCD is different, and my son never dealt with a fear of choking. For all forms of OCD, the treatment is exposure and response prevention therapy. You say you had CBT for two years. ERP is a type of CBT and that is specifically what you need. If you are committed to the therapy and have an experienced OCD therapist, it should help a lot and it should not take that long. At the core is the need to accept the uncertainty of life and again, a good OCD therapist can help. Good luck as you move forward and feel free to keep in touch!

  6. Christopher says:

    You stopped short explaining the methods you used to remedy this calamity. I have a live in girlfriend who has a 11 yr son with adhd,ocd,and odd. The son refuses to eat most foods, except bacon,cheeseburgers,corn,chicken tenders,hot dogs,and grilled cheese sandwiches. I think he isn’t on the right medication,but my gf is refusing to get him on proper meds. My gf refuses to enforce him to eat ,”what is on the table” she has to baby him like a spoiled brat.If you tell him he has to eat it and wpn’t get anything else he starts crying. So, What meds did you employ to treat your child?

    • Hi Christopher, Medication did not seem to help my son. Exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy helped him overcome this issue. I rarely go into detail about my son’s treatment as I am not a therapist and don’t feel comfortable doing so. I always advise those with OCD or other disorders to find good, experienced therapists who can help them work toward recovery.

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